In the profusion of dedicated “days” that punctuate the global calendar, World Maritime Day will be observed on September 24. This has a special resonance for a country like India which despite its vast natural oceanic potential, has often been described as tenaciously sea-blind by way of its policy priorities.
However, to the credit of the Modi government, the maritime sector received rare policy notice literally from day one. In the President’s address to Parliament in June 2014, the government committed itself to setting up a National Maritime Authority (NMA). This body was envisioned to ensure cohesive policy-making and effective coordination among the state agencies dealing with coastal security and maritime matters.
At one time, more than 19 ministries and departments of the government had a locus in the management of the maritime domain. Given the prickly turf sensitivities in India, the need for a single body that could pull all the threads into a harmonious collective effort needs little reiteration.
Various proposals were mooted to create a professional maritime authority with an apex adviser/coordinator, but this remains a work in progress six years since NMA was first proposed. It is instructive to note that there is an element of continuity in the policy formulation of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as a party and that of Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi. The 2014 election manifesto dwells on the pedigree of India’s ship-building in pre-colonial times. In his first three island visits in early 2015, Modi revealed a commendable grasp of the maritime domain and its relevance for India in the 21st century.
In his March 2015 speech at Port Louis, Mauritius, he invoked rich symbolism about India and the ocean when he dwelt on the many opportunities that the Blue Economy (related to the seas) represented and evocatively added: “To me the blue chakra or wheel in India’s national flag represents the potential of Blue Revolution or the Ocean Economy. That is how central the ocean economy is to us.” And with a trademark flourish, he introduced an appropriate acronym for this collective vision-cum-effort – SAGAR – the Sanskrit word for ocean. Modi outlined his inclusive regional vision as: “We seek a future for the Indian Ocean that lives up to the name of SAGAR — Security and Growth for All in the Region.”
India has played a significant role in being a modest but prompt security provider in the event of any crisis. This was demonstrated most effectively in December 2004 when a tsunami struck peninsular India and many parts of Southeast Asia and some islands. The Indian Navy was able to reach the most devastated nations to provide immediate succour and this added to Delhi’s credibility in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.
In early September, a major oil spill off the Sri Lankan coast was averted when a very large crude carrier tanker caught fire and timely action by the Indian Navy and Coast Guard who assisted the Sri Lankan military ensured that the fire was doused and the 270,000-tonne tanker towed to safety. Had this fire not been successfully handled by the various units involved, the Indian Ocean would have been dealing with what could have well become a major oil pollution incident that would have ranked with the most serious oil spills globally.
The Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in a gracious tweet thanked “the Indian Defence Forces for their efforts in controlling the fires. I greatly appreciate your contribution in conserving marine biodiversity by preventing a disastrous situation out in the ocean.”
Earlier in mid-August, an oil spill from a stranded Japanese tanker off the coast of Mauritius saw India sending 30 tonnes of technical equipment and a team of coast guard specialists on board an Indian Air Force (IAF) aircraft to help local authorities deal with what could have become a serious environmental crisis.
Security and growth both for India and the littorals of the Indian Ocean region can be enhanced in a visible manner with prudent and technologically-innovative long-term maritime policies. For this goal to be realised, India would have to invest in the oceans in a far more focused manner and here the health of the global oceans is critical.
Thus it is appropriate that the theme chosen by the United Nations for September 24 this year is “sustainable shipping for a sustainable planet” and preserving the holistic health of the Indian Ocean is of a very critical nature. Experts have warned that the amber lights are already flickering and that the global ocean is now polluted and contaminated beyond repair. Plastic waste is a major threat.
This is a grim diagnosis and will have life-threatening implications across Asia and Africa if, for instance, traditional rain patterns are drastically disturbed. Comprehending sagar in its vast and delicate multi-layered complexity is vital for India. Revisiting NMA of 2014 should be a policy imperative for the government.
C Uday Bhaskar is director, Society for Policy Studies, New Delhi
The views expressed are personal
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